Dr. Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at INEGMA looks at the implications of last week's visit to Moscow by Saudi Arabia's security chief.
Why did Saudi Arabia's National Security Advisor and Chief of Intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan go to Moscow on July 31, 2013? Bandar's surprise and public visit to Moscow caught many observers off guard given the bitter differences between the two countries about Syria and policies to end the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people since the Arab Spring began in 2011.
Saudi and Russian foreign ministries often snipe at each other and accuse each other of unhelpful meddling in Syria. The two countries bitterly disagree on how to resolve the conflict. The Russians claim that the Saudis are supporting the rebels, who "are really terrorists." The Saudis accuse the Russians of backing the Assad regime by providing weapons to the Syrian military that allows them to conduct "crimes against humanity."
Prince Bandar bin Sultan has a comprehensive and in-depth relationship with Moscow. He has flown to Moscow many times to discuss Middle East issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Topics addressed by the two even before the Arab Spring have included Gulf Cooperation Council-Russian relations, arms purchases and Iran's nuclear program. On Iran, Bandar has sought out Moscow's help in delivering messages to officials in Tehran and has asked the Kremlin to support Saudi Arabia's position on the Iranian nuclear program. Saudi officials think the Kremlin has direct influence with Iran on strategic regional issues, including what will happen next in Syria.
Bandar, who manages the Levant and Iranian portfolios in the Saudi government, may also want to use Moscow to communicate the Kingdom's positions on Syria to Assad. The visit brings the Kremlin closer to Saudi Arabia in regards to the Syrian question in a diplomatic role and as a negotiator. This fact may help settle some aspects of the Syrian conflict.
Saudi Arabia considers Russia as one of the few countries that can address the Syrian issue head-on, particularly as Western countries, including the U.S., struggle to formulate policies to help resolve the conflict, which has the potential to cause sectarian instability across the Islamic world. King Abdullah and other senior Saudi princes, including Bandar, want concrete international policy initiatives that end the economic, social and political destruction that is happening in Syria.
The Kingdom and the Kremlin share mutual concerns about the Syrian conflict. One is that violent extremists gain strategic and tactical fighting experience in Syria and bring that knowledge and desire to wreak havoc back home, as they have in the past. For Riyadh, al-Qaeda linked groups and affiliates are the main threat. Islamic fighters from Circassian, Chechen and Dagestiani fighters battling Assad's regime may pose a future security problem in the Russian Federation.
Another issue for both states is the fate of Assad and the remnants of his government. What happens to the Syrian state and the region if he is toppled? Both governments will want to prevent Syria from becoming a failed state. If Assad ever has to leave Syria, Moscow will be his likely destination.
The Saudis could be trying to increase their cooperation, and influence, with the Russians by dispatching Bandar to Moscow. The Saudi prince may be attempting to persuade the Kremlin to slow its support for Assad by offering lucrative military orders and other notable business contracts. The idea of offering money in exchange for cooperation has been a part of the Saudi-Russian relationship in the past. This time, the Saudi approach faces obstacles. Russia's economy is expanding at the fastest rate in Europe, according to the International Monetary Fund, demand for Russian energy exports remains strong and oil prices are above $100 a barrel. Consequently, the Saudis may be unable to use their vast financial resources to influence Russia at this juncture as they have tried to do in the past.
Bandar may have also addressed the Western actions regarding Syria. Despite all the commentary about American and European allies stalling on arming Syrian rebels, many countries still have plans in place for action regarding safe havens, no fly zones, securing chemical weapon sites, and humanitarian assistance. Some countries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, have "boots on the ground" in Jordan in preparation for any activity on Syrian territory. Bandar's meeting with Putin likely addressed this angle and sought out the Kremlin's opinions on the security implications. Saudi Arabia will be, if such action occurs, highly involved in operations.
Finally, the Bandar-Putin meeting probably examined issues in Egypt. Now that Saudi Arabia clearly supports the Egyptian military and their activities to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), Moscow is a natural partner. Furthermore, in Egypt, the government's tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood will have repercussions in Syria because the Ikhwan is in retreat in the Levant as a result of current events in Cairo. As such, the Saudis consider Russia as a key to playing a role in calming down the region through its influence in Syria.
Overall, the coming weeks will keep observers busy for indicators of the result of this critical meeting between Bandar and Putin in late July 2013. Putin is scheduled apparently to be in Iran and Egypt before September 2013. Putin's visit to Iran will likely focus more on the future of Syria than Tehran's nuclear program. The Russian president's visit will help solidify the Kremlin's commitment to Shiite Iran and their man in Syria, Assad. Putin's visit to Egypt is crucial. The Egyptian military and Russians share similar views on Islamic parties. Since Mohamed Mursi was ousted on July 3, the military has moved to cripple the Muslim Brotherhood by closing television stations, arresting their leaders and use force to disperse their protests. Russia has been known to be aggressive against other Islamists who fight Kremlin rule.
Clearly, the loser from this key meeting between Bandar and Putin appears to be the United States. Washington is facing deep paralysis about what to do next with the Syrian issue. What comes next might very well set the tone for diplomatic efforts through the Geneva-2 meeting for all concerned parties-or create greater d